HOME, I SAY.
I’m on the road, I say. I’m in class.
No, it’s okay. What’s the matter?
It was always the first question. Where I was would determine whether I could help. Where are you?—during those early months when I would pick up. He was locked out, he was stuck in the mud, etc. He totaled his Nissan.
I asked him the same question, sometimes twice. Where are you?… You’re where?
I am here. Yes, I can hear you.
Hello? You there?
Yes. Where are you? My tone, like a father’s: angry but concerned about his son who’d gone missing.
Except: I am the son, and it is my father who has called.
Now the silence overwhelms me. There had been periods while he was alive during which I would not hear a word. Is he there? I wondered. Is he still alive? Yes. Someone would contact me otherwise—the police, or his coworkers. Maybe he’s at work. Does he still work?
But now, yes, perfect silence. In those years, there had at least been haphazard phone calls, emails, but now his absence is never compromised. He has become perfect in this way. From the time he died until one year later, there was exactly one year of total silence, a perfect, unblemished year. There was nothing ambiguous. And then it keeps going, the silence: two years, three, yawning up until yesterday, today, this moment.
There were moments during that first year of silence, flashes of doubt when I looked for evidence. His name was still in my phone, but he hadn’t called. Though, he never did, not after he started with the crack pipe. I was in my early twenties when he began smoking, and I learned that if I hadn’t heard from him for months, it didn’t mean he wasn’t there—only that he didn’t need anything.
So now, what did it mean that I hadn’t heard from him in a year? If I called him, a recording said the number was out of service. But people change their numbers: maybe he was alive but no longer had the kind of life that required a phone. I remembered the death-bed scene, but this was only a memory. It felt like a dream. One minute he was there, but then—not? What evidence proved he had really departed?
Still he finds ways to speak.
He doesn’t call anymore, nothing so overt, but his words are incidental now, like something overheard, still echoing. Words he’s written, for example. That letter he gave me when I graduated high school. Looking at you from the stands at the WTHS football field…I couldn’t help but reflect on moments in the past…changing your diapers, feeding you bottles, and feeling soooo content when I’d lie on the couch with you lying sound asleep across my chest. It is that elongated “soooo” that brings him back. I can hear him saying this, his voice, his inflection.
Or the dream. That same one, over and over. The house where I grew up—in he walks through the garage door in his suit—just another day, coming home from work. He’d been alive the whole time, it seems. It’s been a while since the misunderstanding was cleared up, and I notice that everyone has forgotten. My mother in the kitchen, my sisters on the phone, watching TV.
Coming through the door, he loosens his tie and sets down his briefcase, exhausted. I have to remind myself that he is here, that I am blessed with this second chance. I remind myself to be aware of all of him. That thinning, wispy hair around his bald spot, those heavy, golden glasses, that bushy mustache.
He falls into his recliner. His face is shaven; he’s not sweating or knocking his knees. Somehow that’s been forgotten, too, that problem he had. I am afraid to bring it up, to even ask the question for fear of reminding him, bringing down all that clean time like a house of cards.
The ending is always the same, too. He gets up and I have to stop him, have to feel him in the flesh, make sure I’m not dreaming. He has that confused look but never says anything—everything is quiet, a silent movie—and then the scent of Old Spice, and onto his polyester suit I press my cheek, hard against his chest, soft and forgiving.
When we found him out, it was surreal to think he was an addict, smoking crack in his free time—but for him, surreal only that we’d found out. It must have become routine for him long before—the waking up late, the pouring of daylight through the shades, prying at his eyelids. The lying there in his underwear, sheets at his ankles, the question of how to get out of bed, ceiling fan rocking away. He missed a lot of work in those years, and we wouldn’t hear from him for months at a time. He stayed inside mostly and kept the lights out—the light coming through the dysfunctional blinds was enough to let him move through the apartment when he had to. He answered the door with the chain on it—not for me but for everyone else—squinting in the daylight, usually in gym shorts. His torso was white and flabby. Most addicts lose weight, but my father started living on junk food. His face became bloated. His body took on a certain heft, and when he dropped himself into my car, sinking the chassis, knocking his knees together in the passenger seat like a kid, it was like being confined with a large animal.
Having him in the passenger seat was a mixed blessing. I knew where he was—knew his body was safe—but also that he was not inside. If he wasn’t inside, where was he?
Would he be coming back?
In the Garden of Eden, after the sinning, God calls out, Where are you? Where is my human, Adam? Where has he gone? And in the bush, Adam crouches, tries to explain what has happened.
We’ve come to see the question as rhetorical, a request not for information but for Adam to consider how he got there. But also: I think we sense some other force behind the question, some deeper motive.
When I asked my father this question late in his life, it was never rhetorical. It was always a question born of fear. Fear he was in danger. In jail. Lost in the woods.
I have to wonder now if, somewhere inside, my father knew better. If perhaps during his moments of clarity, he might have felt the weight of my question, known the real force behind it, even if I hadn’t.
As a child, I lay in bed. Say your prayers? my mother would ask. When she left—the hallway light filtering under the door and TV talking downstairs—I remember the feeling that everything was taken care of. My father was still awake beneath me, and also, I had prayed—said all the words and crossed myself. In those days I believed in the power of this act. I remember believing wholeheartedly without any doubt, pressing my palms together, pointing my fingers upward to ensure the prayer flew off in the right direction.
Once in a while, my father checked on me after bedtime. Say your prayers yet? he’d say—but in my mother’s voice, a joke between the two of us. And we understood: the three of us were on the same team, of course, but there was a special bond between us men. And then the grizzle of his cheek on mine, Night, bub, he’d say.
Other nights I lay awake late enough to hear the TV go silent, some dishes clinking in the sink. Then my father’s footfall up the stairs—heavier than my mother’s, slower. I could feel my heartbeat when he reached the top stair, and then the creak of my bedroom door, the logic that I need only lie still with my eyes closed. I knew it was too late to be awake. I couldn’t hear his footsteps on my carpet, just the slow whispering of pant legs, and when they reached my bedside, a moment of pause.
In a few seconds he would retreat—I would hear him pull that cheap metallic doorknob softly behind him and be free again to move. But in that pause, I could feel his presence. Even without seeing him, I felt his gaze.
And I felt safe—it seemed this shadow wanted only to protect me, see that I was lost in some dream world, this presence hulking over me just for a moment.
When they gave me that blue plastic urn, I put it in my mother’s basement where I store most of the things I own. All of his things are down there, too, in a separate pile from mine—his golf clubs and fancy beer glasses, paperbacks and framed pictures of baseball stadiums, his tacky souvenirs from business trips—but I put the ashes with my things. I realized later that it might have been more logical to put them with his things—but I didn’t, I think because I felt responsible for their safekeeping. I was their guardian.
I am guarding what’s left of him, yes, but in truth, this feels like a formality. It feels like the least I can do. What I’m supposed to do. I do not feel that he’s in that urn.
I was twenty-five when they gave me that urn, and now in my thirties I notice that when I say my father, it feels like I’m praying again. When I say my father in conversation, I feel as if I’m talking of some long-ago prophet, one that people have forgotten.
A few weeks ago on the news: a doctor who saw the afterlife. Cranial meningitis put him into a coma, during which he remembered nothing of his life. He knew nothing of humans, nothing of this universe. He was stunned by this new world, had never suspected such a place, as he had previously believed only in science. He went on to describe the ride he took on a butterfly, one that flew him first through a meadow, then outside of this universe. He wore a bowtie for the interview, looked like a quack, but had taught at Harvard for years. This made for a compelling story: the Harvard prof who went to heaven.
Not long after, It is so weird, my friend tells me, late one night on her suede couch. She’s talking about watching her mother die the previous year. How she was there one moment and then gone. She was there, and then just meat, flesh. Yes, I say—it is weird. We stare at each other. I mention this doctor who traveled to other galaxies, who received a free ride on a butterfly. The animation on the news rendered a dreamy view from the butterfly itself, as if we were riding its back, through a meadow, then a forest with evergreens, a waterfall.
Weird, I agreed, watching someone die. With my father, it happened as it usually does, on a hospital bed. I felt that he had crossed some threshold, some rite of passage that could not be traversed in the opposite direction, like he had made it to some new level, a place high above me, where my voice could not carry, and he left no note, no number where he could be reached.
He was the kind to leave a note, but I found nothing. I am always confused when I hear about suicides who leave no note. I can figure only that perhaps their lives were in such a state that no energy for a note could be mustered. I would have expected him to leave a note, though—he was not a suicide, but he could have written one when the cancer was closing in, a goodbye written by the real him, rather than by the addict I’d known in the preceding years. With a note, I would have at least known that he’d recovered himself, his clarity, before he departed.
Though, even with a note, I would still have wondered, as I do now, what happened to that mass of him, that body of energy, of spirit that had been walking around for fifty-four years: in that meadow with butterflies, that lush waterfall?
As a boy, knowing where my father was had always been a matter of my own safety.
At Veteran’s Stadium, he was buying a program, he was running to the car for a sweater, etc. Don’t move. Stay here. Stay here with your oversized Phillies cap. Stay here with your giveaway shirt that comes down to your knees, your juice box. Don’t go anywhere. As a child it was hard to know whether he would come back. I stood at the concession stand, watching the escalator, waiting. The strange faces rising up the flight, like magic, levitating, the old people, the fat people, people with funny noses. How scary it was to be six years old, alone with strangers.
I always stayed put, even when lost. The rule was to go to the last place we saw each other. He tested me often. What do you do if you look up and I’m not there? It would have been easy for him to leave. So easy to run off to his other family, leaving me with strangers. He could have fled to his real family, his real son. My sisters liked to tease me with such ideas. All he’d need to do is drive away. I would have known nothing, had no way to reach him.
Because maybe my sisters were right. What do you know when you’re six? Everything had been an act, and this was the easiest, cleanest way. When would his face float up the escalator? How long had it been now? At what point do I find a cop? Where is my dad? My life depended on his location. Until I saw those familiar aviator glasses, that bristly moustache, how could I proceed?
Oct. 26, 2006
I had a nightmare last night that you were found dead. I know you are a very private person, but Pat, everyone who cares about you must be worried sick.
I just want to know you are alive.
Think about it for a minute. I just want to know you are okay. I will not write unsolicited. I promise!
If you just say you are alive I will cease all attempts to communicate with you—unless you initiate a communication. I know you can’t help where you are…the pain for me is real and I know you don’t intend to be cruel.
I am worried about you, Pat. I am worried about your family. Please just tell me you are alive. I’ve told you I lost a very dear friend to cocaine—I need to know you are not a casualty too.
You are in my thoughts.
Oct. 27, 2006
Emily, I am doing okay! I am very sorry for the worry i have caused you. I will write more later,
No sign-off, not even a period. Just that comma. This was one of my father’s old girlfriends. When I read her email, I knew the feeling immediately. For so long he’d been in some middle ground—not dead, but not present, either. Somewhere else. The silence builds upon itself and the effect accumulates—and then we wonder: is he even still out there? Is he on this planet?
I know you can’t help where you are, she wrote.
He did not write more later.
This email, just one of the artifacts illustrating the shape his life made.
“Crack” makes it easier to think about my father because it helps to make the events into a story—but that this is how things ended seems now only a detail in the face of some bigger movement: that dropping off at the end, that disappearing act.
My father was a humble man who kept his inner life to himself, which means that when the time came—when he noticed a problem—he wouldn’t say anything about it. He would just carry on. And from the outside, it seemed to people only that he was changing, that he was perhaps choosing a new direction. That this was what he wanted. And this is the shape his life made: a line of progression, but then just a fading away, a slipping out of view with no explanation, no note. And what would you think if, say, he worked in the office next to yours? If after thirty years you began to notice some lateness, which soon turned into absences, which then turned into week-long hiatuses? If every time you passed his office it was simply empty, but you knew he was still out there.
For thirty years he made a name for himself in that office, but for his coworkers he left no explanation. It began as gossip, rumors, because there was never a bang. Just a slow fading, a seamless transition. After he’d been gone a while, they began to take the rumors more seriously, and eventually came the assumption that maybe it was for real. Maybe he wasn’t coming back.
Months later, the funeral notice from HR to make it official.
That was a shame what happened to Pat, wasn’t it?
It didn’t feel much different for us. There was something that hadn’t been communicated to us in those final years, and we were left with only the shape, the feel of that fading-away.
All of his life, there were friends and family, but in the end, only people who needed something: prostitutes and dealers, other addicts he called friends—a gravitation toward people to whom he meant nothing.
This felt to us as if he’d simply lost interest in our company, as if he’d found something better. It felt like: I will write more later, with that comma, except he never did.
But none of this is unusual, wondering where someone is. It is always the first question. The question must be answered before the conversation can proceed. Where are you? All around me people answer their phones. I’m at the store, they say. I’m in the coffee shop. I’m at the bank. I’m in a meeting, can I call you back?
The question orients the two speakers, allows each to visualize the other, a quick practicality allowing the plan to move forward. If we had cell phones back then, I could have called my father in the stadium. Where are you? I’m coming. Yes. I’ll be there soon. I can see you. Just stay put. I could have called and there would have been no doubting of anything he said. And this is usually how it goes. No one thinks twice. It is assumed the phone will be answered, the question satisfied, the person somewhere—never that the person might not be anywhere at all.
In those final years it was hard to visualize him, even when he did answer the phone. Even when talking to him, it was hard to feel as if I were there with him, the real him. I had to learn to forgo assumptions. You are home, but where are you? I’m talking to you, but are you there? I read the patterns in his voice. Did he sound fidgety, were his words rushed, did he sound with it, was he groggy, was he coughing? After months of no contact, his voice became the most reliable indicator of where he might be. Only in those rare moments when he sounded normal did he seem there—only then did I feel with him.
It was no secret that my father didn’t believe in God. It was said that he was not a spiritual person, not acquainted with himself. His excuse for not going to Narcotics Anonymous was that he didn’t believe in God—no, we corrected him, you just need a Higher Power. Though I do remember him saying: but something must have started it all. This was years before the smoking. How do you get life from no life? he asked.
But I know that for most of his life he did believe in something—some higher power. After he died, I found another email he’d written to Emily, just before the smoking began.
June 4, 2005
Hi, and thank you to you as well (for visiting me!). Was good to see you and catch up. I also enjoyed the evening—a great example of one of life’s simple pleasures…a relaxing evening with a friend, Chinese food, wine, baseball—life is good.
There’s a similar pleasure I’d have last summer that I look forward to…on a warm summer evening sitting on my little deck after work, reading the paper with a glass of wine with background sounds of the ducks and geese in the lake along with the sound of a Phillies game coming out from inside the condo…until it gets dark, the sounds from the lake begin to diminish, the Phillies sounds become more dominant as the stars start to show in the sky and it almost feels like heaven.
This sounds like my father.
Quite different from the pleasures I had in the child-rearing years, he continued, but one very appreciated as the stages of life take their turns.
As my sisters and I grew older and less dependent on him, my father found the purpose of his life fading. When I was a teenager, we began to grow distant, and at some point I have to think my father had started to lose that sense of awe about the world.
More than anything my father loved watching the rain. He loved the moments just after storm clouds burst in the summer. He loved the word downpour. When I was a kid, I sat with him on the green bench on our porch with that feeling of surrender, watching the downpour before us. From the kitchen I saw him on the porch, and when I opened the screen door I smelled the ozone and we sat down to witness the force before us. I have to think it was in moments like these that I was closest to my father, truly with him, connected by the same feeling of awe. Over the thrumming of so many falling drops there was no speaking—we could only witness the water surging from the rattling downspouts, swelling along the curb, flooding the sewer drains.
Still he speaks—through those dreams, yes, though by now the dreams are cunning. They know the plot, and when he comes through that garage door, the dream knows it’s a dream. I try to wake myself, but the scenes keep unfolding, a play the director cannot stop. My father looks at me, confused, as always. Then proceeds the hug, the Old Spice, and into the kitchen he goes—a new evolution—and it’s around this time that I’m convinced: maybe it’s for real. The jug of milk he pulls from the fridge: real, frosty cream that could splatter on the kitchen tile. But the milk never spills, of course, and as the dream dissolves I wake to see the dream has won again.
Where my father is, I cannot say for sure. But I understand something now about this question that I couldn’t have while he was alive. Until he died, it had always been a practical question. A question asked out of fear. There is nothing to be afraid of anymore—the fear has been removed from the equation—but when it rains, I find myself still wanting the answer. Even if I won’t get one, if he must remain on the other side, there is still the impulse to ask. I can see that the force behind the question was never fear, but the desire for reconciliation. When I have these dreams now, or when I walk outside and see the rain, he feels close, as if he is behind these forces, wherever it is that dreams and rain come from.
The transition into those final years had been so slow and seamless that I never felt the weight of what I had lost until now: years after he’s gone, when it rains. There is something about the rain that cuts through the need for any thought process. I feel his presence, that same feeling of him next to me, on the porch so many years ago. How do you get life from no life? I don’t know that he ever decided on an answer, but I know that for him the rain was more than just falling water. The feeling inside of us couldn’t have been only from warm air mixing with cold.
When I prayed as a child, there were no doubts that safely beyond the clouds my prayers would be received—but as I grew older, I looked back on this as the kind of faith only a child can have.
Now I have my own kinds of prayers.
When it rains, this is a prayer.
When I speak of my father—a prayer.
I haven’t recovered my childhood faith, but I am closer now than I have been in a long time because I understand how it is that faith is based on feeling. I understand how believing comes from the inexplicable. Believing in, for example: dusk, and the honking of geese from the lake, the glowing of stars in the sky.
I understand: the force behind God’s question for Adam. The sinning had separated them, and now Adam was on the other side. Where are you? Rhetorical, perhaps, but more important: the first step toward reuniting. The question comes from the impulse for reconciliation.
He sends emails, too, even today. Some virus got into his account and sends spam to his contacts, Hey how goes it? if u would you like to earn some income from home read www.usatimes-today.org/3965 its awfully simple. There is never a last name—the sender shows up in my inbox just as Pat—but I know which one. I saved one of them, dragged it into a folder called “Dad.” It seemed precious somehow.
Toward the end of my father’s life I had gotten used to him calling only when he needed something—not my father, but whoever had taken over. I had to stop answering his calls. I cut off all communication. When I get these emails today, it feels like he’s looking for me, but by now he must have gotten better. After all these years he must have recovered—I find myself wanting to reply, Hey, where are you?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.